George Scialabba’s Latest Collection of Essays

slouchingSome of you may recall our 2105 post on the writer and cultural critic George Scialabba.  Here is a taste of that post:

I haven’t read much of George Scialabba‘s writing. Back in 2012 I did a post on a Scialabba piece on intellectuals, academia, and Christopher Lasch.  But after I read Craig Lambert’s article on Scialabba’s retirement at The Chronicle of Higher Education I realized that I need to read more of him.

What fascinates me the most about Scialabba is the fact that he has spent the last thirty-five years working a clerical job at Harvard University.  Since it is difficult for one to make a living as an essayist and book reviewer, Scialabba worked arranging rooms for meetings at Harvard, operating out of a basement office with no windows. Over the years he has written over 400 reviews and essays in the Washington PostVillage Voice, The NationThe American ConservativeCommonwealDissent, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Review, Foreign Affairs, Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Booksto name a few.  He has published four books.

Over at The American Conservative, Gerald Russello reviews a recent collection of Scialabba essays: Slouching Toward Utopia: Essays & Reviews.

Here is a taste:

This collection covers what may broadly be called questions of political culture. Like the best philosophical critics, Scialabba wants to know how we can live our common life with dignity and justice. He considers writers like Ronald Dworkin, Christopher Lasch, Yuval Levin, Michael Sandel, and others to probe how best to achieve public goods. The goods Scialabba advocates, it should be obvious, are not aligned with mainstream conservative goals. And one can argue with Scialabba’s romance with a non-market economy in which redistributive justice has pride of place. The “utopia” toward which we are slouching is remote indeed.

But perhaps not that remote. In an interview republished here, “America Pro and Con,” Scialabba praises the “vigorous self-assertion of working classes and small proprietors, which I think as close to mass democracy as the world has come, was transformed, largely by the advent of mass production, into a mass society of passive, apathetic, ignorant, deskilled consumers.” That vision would attract not a few Benedict Optioners, and not only them.

Read the rest here.

George Scialabba on Public Intellectuals, the Academy, and Christopher Lasch

Thanks to the folks at Arts & Letters Daily, I spent part of my morning reading this very stimulating interview with social critic George Scialabba.  I have not read anything by Scialabba before, but I will now order his book What Are Intellectuals Good For.  (His book Divided Mind is available here for free). Here is a passage on the rise of the public intellectual in American life
Irving Howe has limned the lineaments of this intellectual culture in a marvelous essay called “The New York Intellectuals”. [L1] He emphasizes above all that they were amateurs, non-specialists, non-professionals, generalists – “luftmenschen of the mind,” as he puts it. It was perhaps the last time in modern cultural history that one could aspire to be a generalist–well, of course one can always aspire to be a generalist, and sometimes one can achieve a great deal in that line–but still, they managed to be authoritative about virtually everything. Admittedly, part of their success may have been their extraordinary gift for sounding authoritative, whether or not they actually knew what they were talking about; but in truth they had an enormous range and versatility. I’m sure it had something to do with New York being the throbbing heart of a great world power, and also something to do with their being newly emancipated Jews, and therefore bringing the passion and resources of that long-suppressed and hedged-in culture and ethnicity to bear freely on their environment for the first time, being able to speak to and about their society as full members, as they rarely had in any previous society. So I’m sure there were things about them that made their extraordinary range and universality possible. But it was also the fact that it was still possible to marshal the resources of the canonical Western literary and philosophical tradition and bring it to bear on politics and society more or less directly.
            But that capacity couldn’t last forever. As the US evolved from a yeoman republic in the mid-nineteenth century to a mass society, as industrial production in particular became the dominant form of economic relations, the new society needed a workforce that was trained up in new skills. So mass education was inaugurated. Now, one of the dangers of mass education, or education of any kind, is that it empowers the educated. It suggests potentially subversive questions about their relation to authority. From the point of view of the owners of society, inquiry of that sort had to be cut off at the knees, or at least, had to be carefully managed. And so new ideologies and techniques of social control, popular management, and the manufacture of consent were developed in the form of the advertising industry, the science of marketing, and public relations as a new aspect of politics and public management.
One of the tools of the manufacture of consent was expertise. Public relations involved finding engineers, scientists, and social scientists who could make the ruling class’s case persuasively. Formerly, all you needed to criticize American foreign policy and corporate policy effectively was a good ear for bullshit. Because government and business propagandists were basically amateurs, their critics could be amateurs. But the new techniques of social control called into being a whole new cohort of intellectuals – one might call them anti-public intellectuals: intellectuals in the service of power rather than in the service of the public. They deployed expertise, which in turn required that they be countered with expertise. But expertise takes time and effort to acquire; and it proved difficult to combine this time and effort with what had formerly been the chief activity of public intellectuals, that is, the cultivation of the humanities. Literary intellectuals like Randolph Bourne or Mark Twain, or philosophers like William James, could muster perfectly adequate critiques of American foreign policy in the early industrial age. But when the ruling class got smarter and better at hiring its apologists, the public needed experts of its own. And these tended to be investigative journalists–I.F. Stone, Seymour Hersh, Glenn Greenwald–or maverick scholars, like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, John Kenneth Galbraith, Christopher Lasch, or William Appleman Williams. 
Read the entire interview for Scialabba’s thoughts on
  • How colleges and universities adopt business models.
  • How colleges and universities throw money at marketable jargon but fail to fund enduring and valuable work in the humanities.
  • How independent-minded young academics who want to write boldly have to constantly “look over their shoulder” and wonder what deans, provosts, presidents, and tenure. committees are going to think about their work
  • The “spiritual and imaginative possibilities of deep reading” when done in stillness and solitude.
  • The work of Christopher Lasch, particularly as it relates to the rise of industrial capitalism’s effect on fatherhood and family.
  • Modernity